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27 JULY, 2015

Albert Einstein’s Love Letters

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“How was I able to live alone before, my little everything? Without you I lack self-confidence, passion for work, and enjoyment of life — in short, without you, my life is no life.”

Under the tyranny of our present productivity-fetishism, we measure the value of everything by the final product rather than by the richness of the process — its rewards, its stimulating challenges, the aliveness of presence with which we fill every moment of it. In contemporary culture, if a marriage ends in divorce — however many happy years it may have granted the couple, however many wonderful children it may have produced — we deem it a failed marriage. What is true on the scale of personal history is triply true on the scale of cultural history, and few public marriages have been subjected to a more unnuanced verdict than that of Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić. The twenty years between the time they met as first-year university students and the time of their final legal separation get compressed into one blunt word itself emptied of dimension: divorce. And yet those were the years in which Einstein did his most groundbreaking work, forever changing the course of modern science; years which produced the only progeny of the quintessential modern genius; years filled with enormous, all-consuming love, which comes to life in Albert Einstein / Mileva Marić: The Love Letters (public library) — a collection of fifty-four missives exchanged between the beginning of their romance in 1897 and their marriage in 1903.

Of course, the missives display the genre’s most prominent caveat — love letters are almost always exchanged by lovers during time apart, the distance only amplifying their desire and the longing adding a layer of intensity to their correspondence that may not exist in their daily life when reunited. And yet they capture a more intimate side of Einstein than any of his other published texts and reclaim the full dimension of a relationship gravely marred by our culture’s incapacity for nuance. In doing so, they are redemptive beyond the couple’s particular circumstances, reminding us of the dignity and dimension of all human relationships when untethered from the tyrannical verdict of their final outcome.

Young Albert and Mileva’s correspondence flows seamlessly from gentle taunting and sarcasm to besotted earnestness, always undergirded by a common tone of sweetness. Tucked between the amorous confessions are frequent discussions of science — in her first surviving letter, Marić confronts the paradox of infinity and tussles with the limits of science; in one of his early letters, Einstein shares the seed for his groundbreaking work: “I’m convinced more and more that the electrodynamics of moving bodies as it is presented today doesn’t correspond to reality, and that it will be possible to present it in a simpler way.”

Since the very beginning, Mileva was poised to be Albert’s equal — the only female student of physics in her university class and two years his senior, she was an intellectually and emotionally mature young woman. Einstein was immensely drawn to her. Like Vladimir Nabokov, who ended an earlier affair with an inferior partner when he fell in love with the brilliant Véra, young Albert grew disillusioned with his previous girlfriend, whom he quite bluntly described as a “foolish darling that can neither do, nor understand anything.” His feelings for Mileva were of a different order — they delighted in reading and discussing the scientific classics together, he frequently remarked on her intellect as superior to his own, and he considered her the grounding rational counterpart to the emotional roller coaster of his extreme moodiness.

Reading their correspondence, rife with deep intellectual companionship, steadfast affection, and extraordinary tenderness, makes one suddenly aware that while Einstein may have stood on the shoulders of giants as he made his monumental scientific breakthroughs, he also stood on the wings of love.

In his first surviving letter to Marić, penned while she was away visiting her family in Serbia, Einstein sets the sweetly sarcastic tone that permeates much of their correspondence:

Dear Fräulein,

The desire to write you has finally conquered the guilty conscience I’ve had about not responding to your letter for such a long time, and which has allowed me to avoid your critical eye. But now, even though you are understandably angry with me, you must at least give me credit for not adding to my offense by hiding behind feeble excuses, and for asking you simply and directly for forgiveness and — for an answer as soon as possible.

[…]

If you don’t my giving you some advice (entirely unselfishly?), you should return as soon as possible, because everything you need to catch up on your studies can be found tightly packed in our notebooks… You will, of course, have to give up your old peasant room which a Zurich philistine now occupies … serves you right, you little runaway!

But now back to the books. Best wishes, your

Albert Einstein

In an 1899 letter to Mileva, penned while visiting his family over spring break, Einstein articulates his sense of having found his soulmate in her:

I’m having a wonderful time at home; I’ve spent much of it tending to the innermost joys, that is to say, i’ve been eating a lot, and well, something which has already caused me to suffer a bit from our favorite poetic ailment, like the time at the Sterns when for hours I sat next to you, my charming table partner. It was then revealed to me in harsh tints how closely knit our psychic and physiological lives are.

Young Albert Einstein as a Zurich Polytechnic student (Photograph: Lotte Jacobi)

But young Albert’s genius came at the cost of a certain social sensitivity. Seeing Mileva as his intellectual equal, he seemed to assume that she was impervious to what he considered the superficial concerns of most women — namely, beauty and the insecurities related to it. In a testament to the toxic and illusory dualism of beauty and brains — the patriarchy, after all, has pitted the two as a tradeoff for millennia — he makes a rather insensitive remark, which he no doubt believes to be a compliment: In reporting on his mother’s response to seeing a photograph of Mileva, who wasn’t considered conventionally beautiful, he writes:

Your photograph had quite an effect on my old lady. While she studied it carefully, I said with the deepest sympathy: “Yes, yes, she certainly is a clever one.” I’ve already had to endure much teasing about it, among other things, but I don’t find it at all unpleasant.

To be sure, Einstein didn’t think highly of his mother’s intellectual capacity — he often described his family by his favorite putdown, “philistine” — so the comment was likely intended as an expression of his conviction that Mileva was different from all other women. In a letter from home penned during summer break a few months later, he affirms this in a particularly poignant passage, speaking to the mystery of how personal identity evolves as he considers how his chosen life-path has diverged from that of his family and writes:

Here is Paradise. I live a nice, quiet, philistine life with my mother hen and sister… You, poor girl, must now stuff your head with gray theory, but I know that with your divine composure, you’ll accomplish everything with a level head. Besides, you are at home being pampered, as a deserving daughter should be. But in Zurich you are the mistress of our house, which isn’t such a bad thing, especially since it’s such a nice household! When I read Helmholtz for the first time I could not — and still cannot — believe I was doing so without you sitting next to me. I enjoy working together very much, and find it soothing and less boring.

[…]

My mother and sister seem somewhat petty and philistine to me, despite the sympathy I feel for them. It is interesting how gradually our life changes us in the very subtleties of our soul, so that even the closest of family ties dwindle into habitual friendship. Deep inside we no longer understand one another, and are incapable of actively empathizing with the other, or knowing what emotions move the other.

For many of us, our romantic relationships are a way of building a new family from scratch, revising and improving the imperfections of our family of origin. But for Einstein, his life with Mileva was a particularly palpable alternative to the family for which he felt sympathetic affection but no intellectual respect. In another letter a few days later, he further solidifies this sense:

My aunt from Genoa is coming, a veritable monster of arrogance and insensitive formalism. I’m nevertheless enjoying each and every day of my vacation in this wonderfully peaceful place. If only you could be here with me for a while! We understand one another’s dark souls so well, and also drinking coffee and eating sausages etc…

By the end of the summer, they were already addressing each other by their pet names — Albert was “Johnnie” and Mileva “Dollie.” (Lest we forget, name-giving is a high act of intimacy.) “Dear Fräulein” became “Dear Dollie,” then simply “DD.” In a letter from September 28 of 1899, Einstein writes:

DD,

It was nice of you, you sweet girl, to write me when you have so much strenuous work to do. But you should also know that your letters make me so happy that everyone teases me about it. You must have had to swallow a lot of book dust recently, you poor thing, but it will soon be over — I know how you feel. I’ve been quite a bookworm myself lately, trying to work out several ideas, some of them very interesting…

I’ll be back at “our place” around the 15th. I’m really looking forward to returning because it’s still the nicest and coziest place I can think of.

In an earlier letter, Mileva had asked Albert for his foot size so that she could knit him bootees, but he refused on the pretext that he didn't want handicraft to take time away from her studies. A few weeks later, he conceded and sent this sketch under the caption 'Johnnie's foot!' To playfully bridge Mileva's aptitude for science and love of knitting, he wrote next to the drawing: 'Since you have such a great imagination and are accustomed to astronomical distances, I think the adjoining work of art will suffice.'

Over the following year, Einstein’s family grew increasingly disapproving of his relationship with Mileva, which his mother termed “the Dollie affair” — they had come to believe that settling down at such a young age would compromise 21-year-old Albert’s career prospects. In a letter from July of 1900, penned while vacationing with his family, he recounts a tragicomic exchange with his mother over the matter:

So we arrive home, and I go into Mama’s room (only the two of us). First I must tell her about the exam, and then she asks me quite innocently: “So, what will become of your Dollie now?” “My wife,” I said just as innocently, prepared for the proper “scene” that immediately followed. Mama threw herself onto the bed, buried her head in the pillow, and wept like a child. After regaining her composure she immediately shifted to a desperate attack: “You are ruining your future and destroying your opportunities.” “No decent family will have her.” “If she gets pregnant you’ll really be in a mess.” With this last outburst, which was preceded by many others, I finally lost my patience. I vehemently denied that we had been living in sin and scolded her roundly, and was about to leave the room when Mama’s friend Frau Bär came in. She is a small, vivacious lady: an old hen of the most pleasant variety. We immediately began talking about the weather, the new guests at the spa, the ill-mannered children, etc. Then we ate, and afterwards played some music. When everyone had left, and the time came for Mama and me to say good night, it started all over again, but “più piano.” The next day things were better, largely because, as she said herself, “If they have not yet been intimate (which she had greatly feared) and we are willing to wait longer, then ways and means can always be found.” The only thing that is embarrassing for her is that we want to remain together always. Her attempts at changing my mind came in expressions such as: “Like you, she is a book — but you ought to have a wife.” “By the time you’re 30 she’ll be an old witch,” etc.

Mileva was only two years older than Albert, so that would have made her a 32-year-old “old witch.”

To seal his contempt for such judgments, he adds:

The people here and their way of life are so hopelessly empty… Every meal lasts one hour or more — you can imagine what hell that is for me…

If only I could be with you again soon in Zurich, my little treasure! A thousand wishes and the biggest kisses from your

Johnnie

Two days later, he writes:

My sweet little one

I’m so happy to know that you’re back home again with your old lady, who is now fattening up my dear Dollie so she can rest in my arms healthy and happy once again, as plump as a dumpling… I just realized that I haven’t been able to kiss you for an entire month, and I long for you so terribly much. No one as talented and industrious as my Dollie, with her skilled hands, is to be found in this entire anthill of a hotel. Mama-in-law has already more or less made up with me and is slowly resigning herself to the inevitable…

I long terribly for a letter from my beloved witch. I can hardly believe that we will be separated so much longer — only now do I see how madly in love with you I am! Indulge yourself completely so you will become a radiant little darling and as wild as a street urchin… Our hotel is a particularly excellent feeding establishment, but I feel uncomfortable among these indolent and pampered people. Especially when I see these overdressed, lazy women who are always complaining about things. It is then that I think proudly: “Johnnie, your Dollie is a different kind of girl.”

A few days later, Einstein — who had a lifelong interest in psychology — captures the root of his parents’ resistance in a remarkably insightful letter to Mileva, in which he addresses his views on gender equality more directly than he ever did elsewhere. Just a few years before George Bernard Shaw’s searing condemnation of marriage as an institution built upon the systematic oppression of women, young Einstein writes:

Papa has written me a moralistic letter for the time being, and promised that the main part would be delivered in person soon. I’m looking forward to it dutifully. I understand my parents quite well. They think of a wife as a man’s luxury, which he can afford only when he is making a comfortable living. I have a low opinion of this view of the relationship between man and wife, because it makes the wife and the prostitute distinguishable only insofar as the former is able to secure a lifelong contract from the man because of her more favorable social rank. Such a view follows naturally from the fact that in the case of my parents, as with most people, the senses exercise a direct control over the emotions. With us, thanks to the fortunate circumstances in which we live, the enjoyment of life is vastly broadened. But we mustn’t forget how many existences like my parents’ make our existence possible. In the social development of mankind, the former are a far more important constituency. Huger and love are and remain such important mainsprings of life that almost everything can be explained by them, even if one regards the other dominant themes. Thus I am trying to protect my parents without compromising anything that is important to me — and that means you, sweetheart!

He then launches into a lyrical love letter brimming with the quintessential lover’s restlessness:

When I’m not with you I feel as if I’m not whole. When I sit, I want to walk; when I walk, I’m looking forward to going home; when I’m amusing myself, I want to study; when I study, I can’t sit still and concentrate; and when I go to sleep, I’m not satisfied with how I spent the day.

…tender kisses form your

Albert

By August, Einstein is back at the couple’s shared apartment, but Mileva is still with her parents in Serbia. He writes:

Though my old Zurich makes me feel very much at home again, I still miss you, my dear little “right hand.” I can go anywhere I want — but I belong nowhere, and I miss your two little arms and that glowing mouth full of tenderness and kisses.

[…]

Have courage, little witch! I can hardly wait to be able to hug you and squeeze you and live with you again. We’ll happily get down to work right away, and money will be as plentiful and manure. And if it’s nice next spring, we’ll pick flowers in Melchtal.

Tender kisses from your
Albert

A few days later, he once again bemoans the psychoemotional strain of being apart from his soulmate:

Dear little sweetheart,

Once again I’ve let a few lazy days slip by without accomplishing anything. You know, the kind of days when you sleep late because there’s nothing important to do, then go out until the room has been made up, and then study until fatigue sets in. Then you loaf around for a while and half-heartedly look forward to dinner, listlessly contemplating highly philosophical questions while whistling a little… How was I able to live alone before, my little everything? Without you I lack self-confidence, passion for work, and enjoyment of life — in short, without you, my life is no life.

Illustration from 'On a Beam of Light,' a children's book about Einstein's life. Click image for more.

After a few habitual laments about his parents, he adds:

Don’t study too hard when your books come; rest instead, so you can become my old street urchin again. There is only one thing I ask of you, and that is to take care of yourself — if not, then I’ll spank you…

With best wishes and tender kisses, the last especially, from your
Albert

By mid-August, Albert’s longing for Mileva has turned him so restless that pens her a playful poem, which he includes in a letter from August 20, masterfully translated by Shawn Smith:

Oh my! That Johnnie boy!
So crazy with desire,
While thinking of his Dollie,
His pillow catches fire.

When my sweetie mopes around the house
I shrivel up so small,
But she only shrugs her shoulders
And doesn’t care at all.

To my folks all this
Does seem a stupid thing,
But they never say a little word
For fear of Albert’s sting!

My little Dollie’s little beak,
It sings so sweet and fine;
And afterwards I cheerfully
Close its song with mine.

He adds:

Oh how happy I’ll be to hold you close to my heart once again! … But in the meantime you should enjoy yourself, my only sweet little woman.

[…]

But you haven’t written me in a long time, you wild witch! Are you afraid it will “miss its mark,” or are you just mad at me, you little rascal? Or do you want me to wonder and hunger for you?

That, too, he illustrates with a playful verse:

From him she now does hide away,
What should he make of this?
To him she is with all her soul
Devoted with a kiss!

In early September, he once again leaves on vacation with his parents, who launch another offense on the relationship. He reports to Mileva:

My parents are very worried about my love for you. Mama often cries bitterly and I don’t have a single moment of peace here. My parents weep for me almost as if I had died. Again and again they complain that I have brought misfortune upon myself by my devotion to you… Oh Dollie, it’s enough to drive one mad! … If only they knew you! But it’s as if they’re under a spell, thinking all the while that I am…

I’ll only be able to recover from this vacation gradually, by being in your arms — there are worse things in life than exams. Now I know. This is worse than any external problem.

My only diversion is studying, which I am pursuing with redoubled effort, and my only hope is you, my dear, faithful soul. Without the thought of you I would no longer want to live among this sorry herd of humans. But having you makes me proud, and your love makes me happy I will be doubly happy when I can press you close to my heart once again and see those loving eyes which shine for me alone, and kiss your sweet mouth which trembles blissfully for me alone…

Kissing you from the bottom of my heart, your
Sweetheart

Two weeks later, he writes:

No matter what happens, we’ll have the most wonderful life in the world. Pleasant work and being together — and what’s more, we now answer to no one, can stand on our own feet, and enjoy our youth to the utmost. Who could have it any better? When we have scraped together enough money, we can buy bicycles and take a bike tour every couple of weeks.

Wedding photograph of Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić, January 6, 1903

Albert and Mileva were married fourteen months later, in January of 1903. Their first son, Hans Albert — to whom Einstein would one day write that beautiful letter of advice on the secret to learning anything — was born in May of the following year. They remained married for eleven years and together for eighteen, and although the relationship ended in divorce, Einstein did spend his formative years as a scientist enveloped in Mileva’s love and intellectual companionship. The apathy, listlessness, and distractedness permeating so many of the letters penned while away from her do make one appreciate just how creatively and spiritually nourishing their love, the full dimension of which comes to life in the remainder of Albert Einstein / Mileva Marić: The Love Letters, was for young Albert’s developing genius.

Complement these tender missives with the magnificent love letters of Vladimir Nabokov to Véra Nabokov, Franz Kafka to Felice Bauer, Mozart to his wife, Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, Oscar Wilde to Bosie, and Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.

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23 JULY, 2015

How Naming Confers Dignity Upon Life and Gives Meaning to Existence

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“Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

To name a thing is to acknowledge its existence as separate from everything else that has a name; to confer upon it the dignity of autonomy while at the same time affirming its belonging with the rest of the namable world; to transform its strangeness into familiarity, which is the root of empathy. To name is to pay attention; to name is to love. Parents name their babies as a first nonbiological marker of individuality amid the human lot; lovers give each other private nicknames that sanctify their intimacy; it is only when we began naming domesticated animals that they stopped being animals and became pets. (T.S. Eliot made a playful case for the profound potency of this act in “The Naming of Cats.”)

And yet names are words, and words have a way of obscuring or warping the true meanings of their objects. “Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf observed in the only surviving recording of her voice, and so they are more accountable to other words than to the often unnamable essences of the things they signify.

Illustration by Ben Shahn from 'Ounce Dice Trice' by poet Alastair Reid, an unusual children's book of imaginative names for ordinary things. Click image for more.

That duality of naming is what Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Thoreau of botany, explores with extraordinary elegance in Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (public library) — her beautiful meditation on the art of attentiveness to life at all scales.

As a scientist who studies the 22,000 known species of moss — so diverse yet so unfamiliar to the general public that most are known solely by their Latin names rather than the colloquial names we have for trees and flowers — Kimmerer sees the power of naming as an intimate mode of knowing. As the progeny of a long lineage of Native American storytellers, she sees the power of naming as a mode of sacramental communion with the world.

Reflecting on a peculiarity of the Adirondack mountains she calls home, where most rocks have been named — “Chair Rock,” “Elephant Rock,” “Burnt Rock” — and people use them as reference points in navigating the land around the lake, Kimmerer writes:

The names we use for rocks and other beings depends on our perspective, whether we are speaking form the inside or the outside of the circle. The name on our lips reveals the knowledge we have of each other, hence the sweet secret names we have for the ones we love. The names we give ourselves are a powerful form of self-determination, of declaring ourselves sovereign territory. Outside the circle, scientific names for mosses may suffice, but inside the circle, what do they call themselves?

[…]

I find strength and comfort in this physical intimacy with the land, a sense of knowing the names of the rocks and knowing my place in the world.

And yet, echoing Aldous Huxley’s admonition that the trap of language leads us to confuse the words for things with their essences, Kimmerer considers the limiting nature of names from her dual perspective as a scientist and a storyteller:

A gift comes with responsibility. I had no will at all to name the mosses in this place, to assign their Linnean epithets. I think the task given to me is to carry out the message that mosses have their own names. Their way of being in the world cannot be told by data alone. They remind me to remember that there are mysteries for which a measuring tape has no meaning, questions and answers that have no place in the truth about rocks and mosses.

Still, Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the aesthetics of silence, “human beings are so ‘fallen’ that they must start with the simplest linguistic act: the naming of things.” Naming is an act of redemption and a special form of paying attention, which Kimmerer captures beautifully:

Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.

[…]

Having words also creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation.

Moss and air plant sculpture by Art We Heart

What is true of mosses is also true of every element of the world upon which we choose to confer the dignity of recognition. Drawing on her heritage — her family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi — Kimmerer adds:

In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other, but also with plants.

[…]

Intimate connection allows recognition in an all-too-often anonymous world… Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing.

Gathering Moss is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. See more of it here, then complement this particular passage with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the deeper meanings of everyday words and a wonderful illustrated catalog of untranslatable words from around the world.

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23 JULY, 2015

The Rebellious and Revolutionary Life of Galileo, Illustrated

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How a college dropout reordered the heavens and forever changed our understanding of our place in the universe.

In 1564, Galileo Galilei was born into a world with no clocks, telescopes, or microscopes — a world that was believed to be the center of the universe, orbited by the sun and the moon and the stars. By the time he died seventy-seven years later, his ideas had planted the seed for the most significant scientific revolution in human history. In addition to his most notorious astronomical discoveries, which challenged centuries of religious dogma by dethroning Earth as the center of the universe and nearly cost him his life, Galileo also invented modern timekeeping, created the microscope, inspired Shakespeare, and even provided a metaphorical model for understanding how culture evolves.

In I, Galileo (public library), writer and artist Bonnie Christensen — who also gave us the marvelous illustrated story of Nellie Bly — chronicles the life of the great Italian astronomer, physicist, engineer, and philosopher, adding to both the finest picture-book biographies of cultural icons and the best children’s books celebrating science.

The story, quite possibly inspired by Ralph Steadman’s superb I, Leonardo, is told as a first-person autobiography narrated by Galileo himself. Christensen’s beautiful illustrations pay homage to the aesthetic sensibility of Galileo’s era, partway between the stained glass of European cathedrals and the artistic style of the Old Masters.

We meet Galileo as a blind old man, sentenced to lifelong house arrest by the Inquisition for his dogma-defying discoveries, then travel with him back in time.

In childhood, his father’s revolutionary theories bridging music and mathematics instilled in the young boy an ethos of challenging convention; at eleven, he was sent to a monastery for his formal education and decided to become a monk, which alarmed his father into sending him to medical school instead; in late adolescence, he dropped out of medical school without a degree.

For the remainder of his adolescence, Galileo was essentially homeschooled and self-taught, conducting various fascinating experiments with his father — such as manipulating the length, tension, and thickness of a string to produce notes of a different pitch.

But his voracious scientific curiosity came at a cost — by twenty-five, Galileo was already quite unpopular for doing away with tradition, from refusing to wear the professorial robes his peers wore to challenging Aristotle’s sacred laws of physics.

Aristotle, the famous ancient Greek philosopher, claimed a heavy object would fall faster than a light objet. I disagreed. To prove my point, I dropped two cannonballs of different weights from the leaning tower. Just as I predicted, they fell at the exact same rate of speed. But the public was not convinced, even in the face of scientific proof. I was not invited to continue teaching at the University of Pisa.

And yet Galileo persevered, continuing to challenge the dogmas of ancient science and religion. His seminal pendulum insight sparked modern timekeeping and his famous telescopic observations, an attraction for Italian royalty, proved that Sun, not the Earth, was what the heavenly bodies orbited.

Aware of how radical and possibly dangerous his discovery was, Galileo remained silent for seven years, during which he inverted the direction of his curiosity and used his lens-making skills to invent the microscope.

When he eventually published his findings, he did indeed incur the wrath of the Inquisition and was locked away in the hills of Arcetri, where he died a blind old man having seen the truth of the universe. His ideas lived on to usher in a whole new era of science and culture, forever changing our relationship to the cosmos and to ourselves.

Complement Christensen’s I, Galileo with the illustrated story of pioneering Persian astronomer and polymath Ibn Sina, then revisit the picture-book biographies of other trailblazing shapers of culture: Jane Goodall, Pablo Neruda, Frida Kahlo, e.e. cummings, and Albert Einstein.

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21 JULY, 2015

Neuroscientist Sam Harris Selects 12 Books Everyone Should Read

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From Bertrand Russell to the Buddha, or why you should spend a weekend reading the Qur’an.

On an excellent recent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show — one of these nine podcasts for a fuller life — neuroscientist Sam Harris answered a listener’s question inquiring what books everyone should read. As a lover of notable reading lists and an ardent admirer of Harris’s mind and work, I was thrilled to hear his recommendations — but as each one rolled by, it brought with it an ebbing anticipatory anxiety that he too might fall prey to male intellectuals’ tendency to extoll almost exclusively the work of other male intellectuals. (Look no further than Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reading list for evidence.) And indeed Harris did — the books he recommended on the show, however outstanding, were all by men.

I was perplexed, both because references throughout his own excellent books indicate that Harris reads far more widely than this unfortunate lapse of packaging makes it seem, and because he is the loving father of two small female humans who will go through life absorbing our culture’s messages about the value of women’s minds and voices. And since I believe that the best way to complain is to do something constructive, I reached out and asked him for an expanded version of his reading list that includes some of his favorite books by women. He kindly complied and offered a stimulating selection of twelve books to enrich any human life — here it is, beginning with the original eight from the show and Harris’s comments about some of them:

  1. The History of Western Philosophy (public library) by Bertrand Russell
  2. Bertrand Russell … is one of the great philosophers of his time… a remarkably clear thinker and writer… a great example of how English should be written and just a great voice to have in your head.

  3. Reasons and Persons (public library) by Derek Parfit
  4. Brilliant and written as though by an alien intelligence. A deeply strange book filled with thought experiments that bend your intuitions left and right. A truly strange and unique document, and incredibly insightful about morality and questions of identity.

  5. The Last Word (public library) by Thomas Nagel
  6. I’m a big fan of Thomas Nagel’s earlier work… He is a very fine writer — a very clear writer — and just as a style of communication … he’s worth going to school on.

  7. The Holy Qur’an (public library)
  8. Everyone should read the Holy Qur’an… Read it — it’s much shorter than the Bible; you can read it in a weekend, and you’ll be informed about the central doctrines of Islam in a way that you may not be, and it’s good to be informed, given how much influence these ideas have currently in our world.

  9. Superintelligence (public library) by Nick Bostrom
  10. The clearest book I’ve come across that makes the case that the so-called “control problem” — the problem of building human-level and beyond artificial intelligence that we can control, that we can know in advance will converge with our interests — is a truly difficult and important task, because we will end up building this stuff by happenstance if we simply keep going in the direction we’re headed. Unless we can solve this problem in advance and have good reason to believe that the machines we are building are benign and their behavior predictable — even when they exceed us in intelligence a thousand-, a million-, or a billion-fold — this is going to be a catastrophic intrusion into our lives that we may not survive.

  11. Humiliation: And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence (public library) by William Ian Miller
  12. The Flight of the Garuda: The Dzogchen Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism (public library) by Keith Dowman
  13. I Am That (public library) by Nisargadatta Maharaj
  14. Infidel (public library) by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  15. The Year of Magical Thinking (public library) by Joan Didion
  16. The Journalist and the Murderer (public library) by Janet Malcolm
  17. Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (public library) by Jean Hatzfeld

Complement with the reading lists of Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Carl Sagan, and Alan Turing, then revisit Harris on the paradox of meditation and subscribe to The Tim Ferriss Show here.

Top illustration by Marc Johns

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